Saints winning despite lackluster ground game
By GUERRY SMITH
METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints are flying high even though they can’t get anything off the ground.
Ranked near the bottom of the NFL in rushing, the Saints are 4-0 because they are doing just about everything else well.
Drew Brees is second to Denver’s Peyton Manning in yards passing and the Saints’ offense is tied for sixth in the league in scoring. Tight end Jimmy Graham is second in yards receiving and has six touchdown catches, tied with the Broncos’ Wes Welker for tops in the NFL.
The defense is sixth in yards allowed and has forced 10 turnovers, putting it on the same pace as the turnover-producing 2009 Super Bowl champion Saints.
New Orleans beat Miami 38-17 on Monday night with the same formula.
Brees threw for 413 yards and four scores, two of which went to Graham. The defense had four takeaways, turning those Miami miscues into two touchdowns. And the Saints finishing with only 68 yards rushing on 24 carries, dropping a spot to 25th in the NFL in rushing with an average of 81.3 yards.
“We absolutely want to make improvements in that regard,” Brees said Wednesday. “We’ve found other ways to win, but in the long run there’s definitely a lot of areas that we want to tighten up, and some of the run game is included in that.”
New Orleans will see if they can do any better Sunday against the Bears in Chicago.
They couldn’t get anything going against Miami.
In one stretch of the first half against the Dolphins, Saints running backs were stopped for losses three times in a row, leading to a pair of punts.
“At some point it comes back to haunt you,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “It’s not something that’s lost on us. It’s still an issue.”
New Orleans has struggled to run in all four victories. Its best effort was 104 yards against Arizona, and nearly half of those came as the Saints ran out the clock on their final possession with a 31-7 lead. New Orleans was ahead 14-10 at the half of that game despite rushing four times for minus-6 yards.
“It’s frustrating,” Strief said. “As a lineman, you’re like let’s get these run plays in, and when you lose two yards, you’re not going to get a run play for a while like that. You look at a lot of plays and it’s one block. You look at some plays and it’s a bunch of blocks. There’s plays with misreads. It’s not like you’ve got nine guys getting destroyed, but there are a lot of things that need to be addressed.”
“It’s more than one problem. It’s been all of us at any given point of the year.”
Starting running back Mark Ingram has missed the last two games with a toe injury, but he averaged only 1.8 yards per carry before then and failed to score on fourth-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1 in week 2.
There are various explanations why they Saints are struggling to run the ball, and many start with the offensive line.
The Saints lost starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod in free agency to Chicago. Former offensive line coach Aaron Kromer joined the Bears, too, after five years in New Orleans. Strief acknowledged that a new scheme featuring more zone blocking required a learning curve. Guard Jahri Evans is playing through a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the first game of his career in week 3.
Coach Sean Payton pointed to New Orleans’ success controlling the clock in the fourth quarter of their last two wins. The Saints lead the league in time of possession, averaging 34 minutes, 16 seconds a game.
“We’re at the top in time of possession because of understanding how important the fourth quarter is,” Payton said. “It (running the ball) is something that we feel like is important and continue to work on.”
The Saints don’t mind being 4-0 while they try to solve the issue.
They are not winning the way they did in 2009 and 2011, when they complemented Brees’ prolific passing by ranking sixth in rushing en route to matching 13-3 records, but they are still winning.
“Every team is different,” Brees said. “Every championship journey is different. That’s what makes the season special.”